FILM / Hanging around with the boys: The real cliffhanger is whether Stallone can pull his career out of the doldrums. Adam Mars-Jones on a rescue mission

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HE WRITES, he paints, he directs (when he is allowed to), he works out. Sylvester Stallone is some kind of Renaissance lunk, but there is something faintly melancholy about his screen presence; he expresses too much, and not enough - too much for an icon, too little for an actor. While Schwarzenegger gives a consistent impression of facial granite, Stallone seems simultaneously blank and tense. He can't express vulnerability, but he tries hard enough so that the mask of invulnerability slips, and however pumped up he is physically, there's always a suggestion of a narrower man trying to get out.

Stallone's Achilles' heel is his upper lip. It's almost caricaturely feminine in shape, a true cupid's bow, and it moves to the right when he speaks. While Schwarzenegger likes nothing better than to curl his lip, Stallone puts a lot of effort into trying not to. It's not Aeschylus' idea of a tragic flaw, but it's what Stallone has got. It's what makes him human, or at least what disqualifies him from playing robot.

It's instructive that although between them they've starred in more or less every variation of the action picture, there's no overlap between Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Arnold couldn't do a boxing film, where pain must be acknowledged before being overcome, any more than Sylvester could do science fiction. Stallone's body hasn't crossed the barrier into something essentially imaginary, whereas Schwarzenegger seems like a fantasy physique franchise registered for legal reasons to a single name.

In Cliffhanger (15) Stallone gets to express grief and horror while hanging upside down from a wire, which he does quite as well as right way up (this is not exactly an Oscar nomination). The screenplay, by Stallone and Michael France, 'Based on a Premise by John Long', does its best to liberate the mountain-climbing picture from its vertical dynamic. It's not just a question of getting to the top first. The plot concerns an aerial robbery which misfires, with three suitcases of cash scattered across a mountain range. Gabriel Walker (Stallone), whose name is appropriately half angelic and half earthbound, must prevent the bad guys from picking up their loot, although he is unarmed, has no equipment and doesn't even have a jacket to protect him against the cold for much of the film.

The plot allows for cat-and-mouse stalking, for some martial arts as well as gunplay, potholing as well as aerial stunts, even a section of nature-documentary gone wrong when a cave turns out to be full of bats. The director, Renny Harlin, who was responsible for the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street and the Diehard sequel, has some experience in the odd enterprise of devising more and more extreme bits of action without leaving the desired certificate-bracket. The controversy looming over the certificate of Jurassic Park is only the logical consequence of the economic imperative for big-budget movies to aim at a young audience, which must be shielded from certain images but is also increasingly jaded. The advantage to Harlin of a mountaineering film is that the obvious conclusion of any individual fight is for someone to fall off the mountain - in which case the nasty, broken bodies, and all that, can take place way down there, out of sight. Certainly the dummies that do the falling in some shots have markedly improved over the last few years. These days they have faces and everything.

Harlin has also chosen to take some of the realism out of scenes of shooting by periodically eliminating direct sound. This is the reverse of an old convention: it used to be that there were bangs unlimited, and people fell down from time to time without being obviously damaged. In Cliffhanger the damage is more visible, but we're protected from some of the detonations. The emphasis falls on the faces and emotions of witnesses, unable to prevent what is happening, rather than on violence itself.

John Lithgow plays the chief villain, who has some terrible lines and some rather good ones - 'You may not want to survive this,' he says to a fellow conspirator in whom he is disappointed, as the plane they are in crashes. Recent films like Diehard and Passenger 57, with their arch-villains played by British actors, have caused a certain amount of speculation. Is it that British theatrical training enables our boys to explore nuances of evil that those Yanks just can't find? Cliffhanger, in which Lithgow merely adopts a British accent, suggests a different explanation. It's hard to find ethnic groups these days that have no political muscle or economic clout with which to protest against negative images. But what are we going to do? Block shipments to America of Melton Mowbray pork pies?

Janine Turner is the love interest, and Gabe's colleague on the mountain-rescue team. Turner came to notice playing a zesty, independent woman in the television series Northern Exposure, and has presumably been hired for her sparkle, but she hasn't really been allowed to show it. She isn't any sort of equal to Gabriel when they're clinging to the sheer face of papier mache, and she ends up discharging the Hollywood-traditional functions of hostage and, when there are bats about, screamer.

There's a touching moment when they're spending the night together in a handy hut, though it's not touching in the way it was intended. Gabe has lit a huge pile of dollars 1,000 bills to keep the pair of them warm. He says: 'It costs a fortune to heat this place,' before adding, 'Bad humour, I know.' The pathos is all in the addendum. He hasn't eaten all day, he's been climbing for his life in sub-zero temperatures and only a singlet, dodging bullets and avalanches, and he still feels the need to apologise to his lover for a comedy failure. Of course it's really Stallone, who wrote the final version of the script, apologising to his audience, wanting to be funny and knowing that he can't quite make it.

In the course of the film Gabe, who was traumatised in the opening sequence by being unable to save a friend from falling, regains his self-respect and his manhood. You could even say he gets in touch with his feminine side; while being kick-boxed by one baddie in a cave he complains about this procedure ('You hit like a cissy') but by the time of the last showdown he's willing to stoop to the unmanly bite.

It's in the fight in the cave, though, that there occurs the most hilariously characteristic moment in Cliffhanger, the logical conclusion of the film's need, and Stallone's persona's need, to go one further. He impales the baddie on a stalactite. Yes, that's right, not a stalagMITE, a stalacTITE. I mean, we've all impaled villains on stalagmites, that's routine. But actually thrusting someone up on to a stalactite from below, bench-pressing them up onto the calcified spike. You really need to be in shape to do that.

For details see right.

(Photograph omitted)